Diagnosis of suffering

20 05 2017

The world is full of suffering. Each one of us perpetually move from one or more problems to others. When one problem or form of suffering ends, the other springs up, seemingly from nowhere. The first noble truth of Buddha acknowledges this reality of existence. Despite the reality of pleasures, it is the suffering that precedes or follows pleasures and seems to occupy a major portion of one’s conscious life. The diagnosis of this pervasive suffering as proclaimed by the second noble truth of Buddha is our desire and attachment for worldly pleasures. Our craving and clinging towards myriad pleasures is at the root of all misery, asserts Buddha. I can relate to this fact and experience it all the time.  Sometimes my desire to seek validation results in me putting too much effort into something making me stressful and ultimately miserable despite my material success. My desire and attachment towards nice clothes, accessories or other material things, even though gives me a transient euphoria upon accumulation and perusal of them, puts me on a hedonic treadmill and often leaves me unsatisfied and craving for more. This aligns with the essence of Buddha’s teachings that the “pursuit of pleasure can only continue what is ultimately an unquenchable thirst”. (Basics of Buddhism. http://www.pbs.org/edens/thailand/buddhism.htm).

However, when I think deeper about different forms of suffering, the Buddha’s diagnosis of suffering seems to beg a deeper understanding. There are other kinds of unpleasantness in life besides acute suffering, like getting frustrated, annoyed, and irritated by someone or something that doesn’t fall in line with our expectations. As we judge others based on our opinions and perceptions, we experience negativity. This intolerance is also a cause of lot of rift in our day to day life.

But when we question these emotions, we may come to a conclusion that it’s our ego and attachment towards things and pleasures that drive our underlying expectations. But it’s not always clear to me, to fathom the root cause – desire, attachment, craving – behind all of my unpleasant experiences. For example, when I get irritated by an impatient driver cutting in front of me, it is a form of suffering if I dwell on it and allow it to affect my composure. When I really think about why it affects me, it’s not entirely evident as to what desire or craving resulted in this misery. In this regard, I’m not entirely sure about the comprehensiveness of Buddha’s diagnosis of suffering.

Poverty and other forms of lack of basic needs (including social and belongingness needs), also cause lot of suffering for mankind. It is difficult to understand how this form of suffering can be a result of one’s craving. Even more difficult is to comprehend how it is possible to be detached at this level and transcend these basic needs.

Despite these misgivings on my part, I believe in the second noble truth because when I imagine myself curbing my cravings and desires, I can sense the promise of feeling lightness and freedom from my many sufferings. In order to comprehend these not so obvious forms of suffering and their root causes, we need to understand the true nature of suffering or “dukkha”, which simply means absence of happiness. Since happiness and pleasure are associated with impermanence, the absence of them aka dukkha is the only reality of life. And ego-desires are the cause of most human suffering. However, suffering is only an approximate translation of dukkha, which in facts encapsulates the misery of mankind in a more comprehensive way. In this regard, Buddhism promotes a state of mental well-being that can be achieved by accepting and rising above this suffering. Understanding and acknowledging the diagnosis of dukkha is a key step in this journey.  (The Buddhist Concept of Life, Suffering and Death, and Related Bioethical Issues. Pinit Ratanakul. Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 14 (2004), 141-146.)





Digital dump

20 03 2017

We are in a data explosion era. No surprise there. Unprecedented amount of data is being captured virtually about everything everywhere. Each day we are leaving a detailed digital footprint across the web and through several other applications and connections. Apart from the Internet, myriad gadgets and software applications, each one of us is also accumulating huge amounts of personal data. It’s all over. Filling the hard drives of the multiple computers we work with, storage on smartphones and tablets, and cloud storage services like Google Drive, One Drive, iCloud, Dropbox, Box etc. Not to mention external hard drives and pen drives.

The moment of truth finally struck me as yet another of my cloud storage accounts has reached its limit and refrained me from editing. I could have paid for increasing the storage space, but that’s not the point here. I have several online accounts that I leverage for cloud storage and almost all of them are full – with pictures, videos, documents, and music. Lots of them. And it never seems to end. This hoarding.  I periodically take backups of the contents of my laptop and store them in an external hard drive. I’m not sure how much of it is repeated and how many times. I collect articles, documents, books, my personal projects forever in progress, learning material, notes and many more. And all this outside of what’s in my email inboxes.

Why keep it all in the first place?  Preserving history. You never know what part of your past you might want to look at in future for reminiscing or what part of your past might hold a key to your present or future problems. Or so we rationalize. Storage is cheap. So, we store. Almost everything. Creating a huge digital dump.

Do I always know what all I already have? Not really. Oftentimes I can’t even remember the number of accounts and storage devices I have, let alone the contents of each. Even if I remember that I had something stored safely, often I can’t find or get to it efficiently. This is not just a simple “organization” issue. Though of course, it helps. The sheer scale of the data one gathers makes any attempt of periodically cataloging and maintaining the data dumps appear insurmountable. Even more so because cleaning up and organizing stuff is perhaps one of the least appealing tasks one can do. (Please note that here here I’m speaking more of myself than anyone else 🙂 ) Especially because one has to do it regularly to maintain.

When I started thinking about digital hoarding, I immediately saw that the minimalist approach that we (some of us) try to apply to our physical possessions can be extended to even these virtual possessions.  With physical objects, you can at least get a sense of magnitude by virtue of the physical space they occupy, the amount of money you expend on accumulating them, and the resulting impact on quality of life. But with digital hoarding, it’s difficult to get the head around the extent of your possessions beyond a point. And the fact that the costs are minimum doesn’t help either.

But one may argue that if the costs are minor, why bother. Valid point. But I believe that there are hidden costs. Most of the data just lays there, dormant, waiting, and completely ignored. Passwords forgotten and accounts seldom logged in, DVDs/CDs gathering dust etc. If all that data could think, it might have had some serious existential questions. 😛 . This massive amount of digital data – where does it eventually go? What happens to it? If it’s in the cloud, privacy is definitely a concern. As for the physical storage devices, they create clutter and have some of the downsides of other physical possessions; harder to maintain and difficult to find and retrieve information.

Of course, as with physical possessions, it would be very difficult to let go of your digital history. Especially, pictures. But do you really need all of those tens of thousands of pictures? Anyways, one has to start somewhere while pruning. The easiest task would be to eliminate duplicates. Then tackle obsolete notes and documents. Movies and old music that you seldom peruse can be next. Consolidating, grouping, and labeling help a lot to bring structure to your digital universe.

It’s not about the quantity, but the quality. My guess is that when you tackle the former, the latter will emerge by itself. When you have low inventory, finding stuff and maintenance will be more efficient. There is definitely hope. I hereby avow to embark on the journey to transform my personal digital footprint (at least what’s under my control).





The cool factor

8 02 2017

“That’s cool.”

“He’s cool.”

Person 1: “I have done/seen something”

Person 2: “Cool”

“Cool” is one of those new-age slang terms that fascinate me. The way it’s used in varied circumstances and to mean different things.

The urban dictionary presents come cool interpretations of this cool word (pun intended):

  • Popular
  • Awesome
  • Laid back, relaxed
  • Very good, stylish, neat, pleasing, generally positive
  • Nice
  • Okay with each other (not nice, not mean)
  • Used when the conversation goes silent
  • Used when you don’t know what else to say,
  • Used when you are not interested in a conversation
  • Used when you do not know anything about the subject but want to appear as a know-it-all

Wow, look at that! Have you noticed the contradictions? It can mean either “nice”, or just “okay”. It can mean “awesome”, or just “nice”. And it’s especially intriguing to note its role as a conversation filler. So many connotations. Needless to say, it would be almost impossible to interpret the intention behind this word correctly without the tone and other non-verbal cues and in come cases lot of context.

I’m particularly interested in exploring its use with people. A person is cool if he’s perceived as relaxed and laid back. Or if he/she has a confident, or don’t care attitude. It can also mean that the person possesses some admirable traits. This implies that there cannot be a definitive set of traits that define coolness. They differ based on circumstances: in one setting a person who expresses his emotions and vulnerabilities can be deemed as cool by  his peers, whereas in another setting, the person who holds up a facade in the midst of turbulence is considered cool. Also a cool “guy” usually has totally different traits compared to a cool “gal”.

Here is a quote from Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl on “cool girl”:

“Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, …, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want.”

In effect, coolness is anything desirable. You perceive someone is cool if that person possesses those qualities that you desire. Someone is also cool if they have traits and exhibit behavior that you wish you have it in yourself (courage, candidness, confidence, charm etc.). Since desirability is highly subjective, so is what constitutes being cool.

Such a versatile word! Very convenient. 🙂





Blind faith

17 01 2017

Years ago I read a short story by Khushwant Singh titled “Mark of Vishnu”. It’s a story of a devout person Ganga Ram whose blind faith leads to his untimely death. He worships a deadly poisonous black cobra foolishly and practically invites its wrath and thus his instant death. The story might seem dramatic and far-fetched but to me, it’s akin to a parable. It carries a profound moral and conveys a powerful message against superstitions and the need to exercise rational thinking.

Somehow I feel like that Ganga Ram sometimes. Many times. Whenever I’m under-prepared. Whenever I don’t have a plan B. Whenever I rely completely on others’ expertise, kindness or good nature. Sure some of them are calculated risks but still. Ganga Ram’s fate serves as a strong reminder to guard myself from my own foolishness, not to have blind faith in anyone or anything. It might seem like common sense. One may even be appalled that it has to be stated aloud. But one shouldn’t forget – everything is common sense in hindsight.

I feel that the story’s all the more significant for me because faith has always been my default response. It’s effortless. It’s convenient. Unlike doubt and skepticism, which are harder. Nonetheless, Ganga Ram is never too far from my consciousness, ever since I was acquainted with him. I remind myself – No Blind Faith.

I would like to take a moment to appreciate the author, Khushwant Singh, for the no-nonsense genuinity of the story. I would say brilliant piece of lit.





A powerful thought

27 12 2016

sunset

What makes a day “good” or “bad”? What makes a trip success? Well of course, there are expectations. Those and there is rumination.

It’s not the beautiful sunset itself that gives you pleasure but rather the thought of it. It’s not the failure itself that causes fear but rather the thinking you do and the stories you tell yourself about it.

It’s the thought that generates pleasure and fear, says J Krishnamurthy in his beautiful and deeply affecting book – “You are the World”. I browsed through it years ago when I was a teenager and this particular “thought” stayed with me, albeit a tad subliminally. I’m sure it would serve me lot better to bring it to the surface of my conscious self. 😛

To separate thought from experience is the ultimate freedom!





Are men and women equal?

27 11 2016

Are men’s and women’s brains different? In other words, are the differences in how men and women think rooted in biology?

It is an 18th century question, according to Gina Rippon, an eminent neuroscientist. When I posed the same question to my 9 year old, just for the fun of it, he basically mirrored the above sentiment. He thought that the question is absurd. When I pressed him further on whether could there be a scientific and objective evidence that there’s indeed some difference, he refused to take the bait. He stood his ground and refused to consider the question because he reasoned, the question “are men and women equal?” in itself suggests that they may not and hence lead to discrimination, which is by all means an undesirable and an incorrect behavior. In other words, he treats it as a leading question. Oh boy!  What Gina means by her comment is that several advancements have happened since 18th century that effectively and conclusively answered that question in negative.

Regardless of any insinuations and despite our need to be politically right, I think it’s still an interesting and relevant question to think about even in this century. Among the many differences we commonly observe, some are myths, some are culturally driven, while some are rooted in biology and/or evolution. Take for example, the notion that women are more emotional than men. It’s not exactly true because what’s different is more expression of an emotion rather than the emotion itself. The observed difference could well have been only a result of cultural and social stereotyping. I guess more or less similar reasoning can be given to most of the stuff you find in the gospel – Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. :). But some differences do exist.

With all the advancements in neuroscience and biology, we have greater insights into human brain now than ever. In fact, today’s neuroscience sees little difference in how women and men are fundamentally capable of thinking. Whatever stereotypes we have going around are just that – stereotypes largely based on deep cultural notions and the resulting psychological impact of acting on those stereotypes. For example, take a typical belief that women are  not (or cannot be) as good at math as men. In fact, time and again the test scores reveal the same. But capability is not at the root of this trend. When the cultural expectation is for boys to outperform girls in math, and the girls believe it as everyone else, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s the attitude towards competition and the anxiety induced resulted from cultural stereotypes that causes girls/women to under perform in certain areas (Study).

But some argue that nature and evolution cannot be overruled.  Historically, men had always been specialized in competing for mates, and women in caring for the offspring. According to Helena Cronin, a Darwinian philosopher, the different reproductive strategies of two sexes with completely different sets of associated costs and benefits, lie at the root of all gender differences between men and women. This survival tendency has clearly established different patterns of behavior and thereby nurtured disparate strengths in men and women.

And of course, one should not rule out the role of biology. The male hormone of testosterone is clearly associated with competitiveness, aggressiveness, dominance, assertiveness etc., while estrogen promotes stable mood, sense of well-being, improved cognition etc. (An interesting tidbit is that humans are naturally female and testosterone masculinizes boys in the womb.) As per Cambridge psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, who has done extensive research on autism observes that “higher levels of fetal testosterone could explain increased prevalence of autism spectrum disorders in males”, following the theory that “the male brain is programmed to systemize and the female brain to empathize”.  Is this why women are considered more adept at social thinking and interactions compared to men. Testosterone is also strongly associated with violent and anti-social behavior. Hmm! Women also have testosterone, but men of course are characterized by much higher levels (10 times compared to that in women).

Another perception is that men tend to be more analytical than women or women tend to be more intuitive than men, hence the notion that men are largely left-brained and women are right-brained. Studies suggest that male brains may be optimized for motor skills while female brains may be optimized for combining analytical and intuitive thinking. Men also perceived to be laser focused while women are multi-taskers. Women tend to absorb more and store it all in their brains compared to men. Could these differences be explained by the hunter-gatherer theory, the sexual division of labor, where men normally pursued risk taking activities of hunting, while women were relegated low-risk task of gathering rich calorie for nurturing? Or do they have true biological causes? There are a lot of contradictory arguments and lot of conflicting “evidence”.

Neuroplasticity is perhaps the most important and fascinating discoveries in recent times. There is nothing static about ourselves – not our bodies, which regenerates itself with new cells every 6 months or so, to our brains, defined by the interconnections among neurons that can strengthen or weaken depending on the experiences and behavior thereby redefining them constantly. Isn’t it amazing? Change is indeed the only constant. 🙂 As our brains are getting continuously rewired, based on external stimulation, nature and nurture are so strongly intertwined that I think it’s difficult to disentangle them and say for sure where one ends and the other starts.

From the evolutionary perspective, we still have the same basic instincts as our primal ancestors. The gender differences (some if not all) too are rooted in them. But in today’s world, many of them maybe are irrelevant. We are not living in wild and are not facing the same kind of survival problems. Mankind’s development happened so rapidly that evolution and nature needs time to catch up. Am damn curious to know as to what the next evolutionary changes for us would be – what our basic instincts would be. Sometime in future when physical strength and all other evolutionary differences between men and women become less and less relevant for survival, can we achieve a gender neutral society? A society where no gender has an advantage over the other. Well, is it a good thing? It certainly sounds like it is. But who knows!





Connecting the dots

29 10 2016

When I first observed a series of seemingly random incidents/occurrences, which happened over a period of time, converging on common threads/trains of thought, I found the phenomenon profound and mildly exciting not unlike childlike wonder. At first glance, those independent events appear very insignificant and totally unrelated to anything else.  But when you are able to connect the dots and derive meaning or make a story out of it, it’s fascinating and open the doors for new trains of thought and/or perspectives.

A few examples:

I’ve been thinking about “judging” a lot for a long time, especially in the context of parenting and how the current societal norms for parenting are so exacting. Recently, I came across a podcast on “Growing up”, which among other things, talked about anxiety of modern parenting.  I find this topic so intriguing and worth of further study much beyond the blog post I produced a couple of months ago.

Years ago I read a random story  about a working couple, who decide not to have children owing to their demanding careers. It was truly shocking for me at that time. Sometime later I had an acquaintance revealing her intention not to ever have kids in her life. Quite recently, I chanced upon a book titled “Selfish, Shallow, and Self-absorbed” book, which is a collection of essays by 16 writers who chose not to have kids. I haven’t really influenced any of these occurrences, but over time they all stitch together to provide me with a whole new perspective.

A colleague casually remarked on  a podcast about personal love stories. With that memory nowhere in my conscious mind, I impulsively pick up an audio book of Story Corps from the local library. A little while later, through a totally unrelated talk on “Art of listening”, came to know about how David Isay’s Story Corps (listening to others’ stories) is a revolutionary idea that’s impacting people’s lives and that this ongoing oral history project has bagged the one million dollar TED prize for the year. These connected dots quite opened up for me a totally new way of thinking about power of stories.According to David Isay, the most powerful words that one can speak to another:

  • Thank you
  • I’m sorry
  • Forgive me
  • I forgive you

Truly powerful. Simple. Aren’t they?

Of course, if we try to rationalize this phenomenon of seemingly “strange coincidences”, I’m sure we can find one or more perfectly reasonable and logical explanations. I don’t want to go into what they might be now. But there is one thing I can definitely say about them: they wouldn’t be as awe-inspiring. 😉